Saturday, 2 July 2016

Melmoth: Cerebus The Nihilist

Cerebus Vol 6: Melmoth
Collects Cerebus#139-150 (1990-1991)
by Dave Sim & Gerhard
(a review by Ng Suat Tong in The Comics Journal #154, November 1992)
Dave Sim is a consummate and, at times, very subtle satirist. He is the epitome of the opinionated asshole, and his Cerebus remains one of the few truly profound works available in comics. Melmoth is the fifth book in Dave Sim's Cerebus epic. It is a milestone of sorts for Sim, because no other artist has been obstinate or crazy enough to devote himself solely to the production of more than 150 issues of a comic. As a result, Cerebus reflects the growth and changing concerns of its creator. Some aspects of Sim's work have not changed appreciably -- he has always masked the depth of his work with irreverent and exaggerated caricatures of famous personalities or characters - but with the years, he has demonstrated ever increasing patience, economy and calmness when expressing the ideas that mean the most to him. With 150 issues still to go, Sim may well get around to addressing almost every issue of importance in our pitiful existence.

Sim has decribed Melmoth as a "distant epilogue to Jaka's Story" and a "prologue to Mothers & Daughters". As such, it should be viewed in the light of both of these novels. Melmoth is, in essence, a description of the last days of Oscar Wilde, gleaned from Richard Ellmann's splendid biography and the letters of Robert Ross and Reginald Turner. Melmoth #0 reintroduces Sim's one-time parody of Batman (and also Captain America, Moonknight, Wolverine and, most recently, the Punisher) as Normalroach. Iest remains under martial law, and the Cirinists continue to strike terror into the hearts of the populace. The average, well-mannered man (ie the Roach) is impotent when faced with the conquering army of female religious fanatics. He can't get his order of mineral water from the waitress, and even his trademark antennae are summarily disallowed. Faced with such mind-numbing atrocities, his response is reduced to variations upon the words "fuck" and "cunt" (Sim uses this word nowadays as he feels that women have become too proud of the word "bitch" to regard it as a real insult). Normalroach (read Sim) get his long-awaited revenge in Mothers & Daughters which, transformed into the aptly-named Punisheroach, he slaughters a host of Cirinist. Sweet revenge indeed.

Would a dedicated artist like Sim insert irrelevant comedy at the beginning of such a serious drama? The possibility exists, as he has a tendency to soften the brooding intensity of his scenes by juxtaposing gag sequences. On the other hand, his intentions might be the exact opposite of this -- that is, to intensify the mood of the serious segments of the story. An example is in Melmoth #7, when archbishop Posey gets frightened by his own reflection. This seven-page comic sequence follows a "painful" scene in which Oscar attempts to get out of bed. However, by the seventh page, when Posey is sentenced to five years hard labour by the Cirinists, the reader is trying to stifle a yawn. Sim's technique id faultless, but the sequence is too familiar, especially to a generation brought up on Saturday morning cartoons. Weighty drama like Melmoth is diluted by such juxtapositions, and the overall story suffers as a result. Melmoth #0 may not serve such a dramatic purpose -- it seems more likely that Normalroach's virulent diatribe stems from Sim's utter disgust at virile women leaders and their like. Sim gives us comedy, and also takes the opportunity to vent his spleen. (This bears comparison to the cathartic misogynistic fantasies of Wendy Whitebread's creator, Don Simpson.)

What occurs in the following eleven chapters is rather divorced from this prologue. Sim makes no effort whatsoever to disguise the fact that the Oscar of Melmoth is, in fact, Oscar Wilde. Melmoth is a straightforward and accurate transcription of his last days, and any alteration in the facts merely serves to firmly entrench the characters in Sim's fictional world of Estarcion. To establish this fact, a short biography may be in order.

Oscar Wilde was released from prison in 1897 after serving two years of hard labour, mostly at Reading gaol. He immediately moved to France -- hence the French spoken by the proprietor of the Hotel d'Alsace, Dupoirier. In France he undertook the pseudonym Melmoth and published his last major work, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol. The name Melmoth is derived from Charles Maturin's novel Melmoth The Wanderer, and is somewhat appropriate, since it tells of a man who has lived for 150 years by selling his soul to the devil, and his subsequently inability to get anyone to take over this burden from him. The Ballad Of Reading Gaol was very much admired in France. Balzac wanted to write a sequel to it, and Baudelaire (from whom Wilde is said to have derived some of his ideas on aesthetics) was determined to translate it. One probable failing of Melmoth is that it seems to suggest that Wilde's only companions were Ross, Turner, Dupoirier and his doctors. This discrepancy results from Sim's exclusive use of Ross and Turner's letters, but it may be argued that his economy heightens the emotional pitch of the work.

The Oscar of Melomth is a mere shadow of the witty intellectual portrayed so vibrantly in Jaka's Story. Wilde suffered from bacterial infection of the middle ear (otitis media is a symptom of tertiary syphilis) and died of an acute inflammation of the brain (meningitis). Oscar is thus shown with a bandaged ear and in a severe febrile state. With each issue, he grows increasingly emaciated and confused. In an age before the advent of penicillin, Wilde's condition was largely untreatable. Sim effectively depicts the confusion, dementia and suffering which would have been evident in Wilde's gradual deteriorating condition. A minor slip-up is seen in Melmoth #9 when Ross returns to Iest at Turner's behest. Ellmann states that Wilde "had a fortnight's beard" at this point in time, but Sim omits this in his illustrations.

The near-verbatim transcriptions of Ross and Turner's letters, together with Sim's keen interpretation of them may not, however, be sufficient to produce any significant emotional impact upon the reader. The portrayal of Oscar in Jaka's Story may help to elicit some sympathy from readers, but the fact is that real life has dictated the Wilde's death would be neither remarkable nor exceptionally moving. The tragedy of Wilde's story lies in his eloquent defence, conviction, imprisonment and rapid decline in the space of three years. These events are not found in either Jaka's Story or Melmoth. Perhaps Sim has compensated for this by depicting these things in connection with Jaka in his earlier book, but this does little for Oscar himself. On the surface, therefore, Melmoth seems targeted mainly at Wilde's many admirers.

This is in contrast to, say, Gilbert Hernandez' biography of Frida Kahlo in Love & Rockets #28, which is more of an introduction to this less well-known artist and is designed to invoke the curiosity of the reader. Melmoth could also be compared to Frank Stack's The Lying Ear in Blab #6, which describes the relationship between Van Gogh and Gauguin. The landscapes are done in the style of Van Gogh's drawings, Van Gogh's face is drawn with his self-portraits in mind, and Stack has taken artistic licence in depicting Van Gogh's personal demons. In contrast, Melmoth is daring in that Sim depicts a largely uneventful death without sensationalism -- thus running the risk of alienating and boring his audience. Since Melmoth is part of a greater work, he has declined to change his narrative devices and does not indulge in the symbolism and expressionism presented in Hernandez' story.

Melmoth is more than a simple biography. It should be remembered that Sim has consciously chosen Melmoth (and hence Oscar Wilde) to end the male cycle of his opus. The significance of this is not entirely clear as yet, for Cerebus is a work-in-progress, but I shall attempt a partial explanation.

There is a significant subplot which runs through Melmoth that concerns Cerebus, At the start of Melmoth, he is seen clinging tightly to his sword and Jaka's doll, Missy, totally devastated by the sudden loss of his loved one. (A recent interview with Steve Bissette [Comics Journal #107] reveals that Sim has remained similarly unapproachable and contemplative after breaking up with his girlfriend.) One cannot help but notice that even as Oscar sinks deeper into the arms of death, Cerebus acquires increased confidence and vitriol. For example, Melmoth #7 begins with Cerebus engaging in some acrobatic nut-eating and exchanging some icy words with a neighbour, an improvement over his usual blank stare in the previous issues. Immediately following this, a transcription of Reginald Turner's letter's to Ross states, "I'm afraid it's all over with Oscar." Cerebus' gradual return to normalcy culminates in an act of violence that closes the novel. It is a watershed of sorts. Sim has never depicted violence quite so graphically before. The reader experiences a sense of exhilaration and release which is almost cathartic. This feeling is heightened by the fact that the previous 38 issues had moved along at a deliberately leisurely pace.

This bloodbath spills over into Mothers & Daughters, and its extensive nature suggests that it is of some importance to the overall plot; a few facts might be helpful in deciphering its significance. Wilde was a great champion and spokesman of the Aesthetic movement. Sim has hammered this into his readers by printing the preface to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, one sentence at a time, in the latter half of Jaka's Story It is also no coincidence that Sim would choose a play on words of Turgenev's Fathers & Sons (whose protagonist is a nihilist) as the title of his next book. I quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The popular conception of a nihilist... was that of a dishevelled, unruly figure rebelling against tsarist [Cirinist, in this case] absolutism and all forms of aestheticism, accompanying his protest with political terr or and anarchism.
This sordid form of nihilism (represented by Cerebus himself) is in marked contrast to that propounded by Nietzsche, who proposed to "replace the spirit of science with a conception of existence and the world as an aesthetic phenomenon and justified as such." Turgenev's nihilist, Bazarov, is also doomed by love, as is Cerebus. Wilde himself wrote the following concerning his play Vera; or, the Nihilists:
I have tried in it to express within the limits of art that Titan cry of the people for liberty... But it is a play not of politics but of passion.
Ellmann states that Wilde's "nihilists in the play are united in their detestation of torture and martial law, and they insist that whatever is, is wrong." In the death of Oscar, therefore, we may have an allegorical reference not only to the death of aesthetics but also of freedom. (It should also be noted that Sim has specified death as his theme for Melmoth, and it pervades every facet of his story.) The Cirinists (in a sense nihilistic themselves) represent some as yet ill-defined form of female repression concerned with the mother goddess and fertility cults and feminism (Sim is quite vocal about the fact that he is not a feminist and is opposed to the current status of feminism). Another quotation may help top explain the relevance of these cults in Sim's current storyline:
The juxtaposition of life and death in the female is a common theme in mythology. Since nature gives women the power to create life, it is logical to suppose that they might also have the power to take it away, and consequently many myths represent women as holding the secrets of life and death. The harsh character of some goddesses also springs from the role of the female as upholder of marriage and family life, the corner-stone of a stable society. Generally, it is the females who wish to enforce social rules, such as those against adultery, incest and homosexuality.
The Cirinists are the embodiment of these ideals. They have imposed their laws on marriage (as seen with Jaka and Rick) and imprisoned the Oscar of Melmoth (for his association with Lord Alfred Douglas); they wield the power of life and death over the people of Iest. Melmoth this represents a changing of the guard, where a tolerant male-orientated society is slowly subjugated physically and spiritually to the will of females.

Whether by accident or skillful planning, a link may also be seen between Turgenev's On The Eve and Sim's Jaka's Story. The jacket notes on my copy of Turgenev's novel are particularly succinct -- I thus quote from them:
...Turgenev tells the story of Elena and her three suitors: Shubin [Oscar], the fickle, self-mocking artist; solemn, loyal Bersenyev [Rick]; and Insarov [Cerebus], the man of destiny.
However, it should be noted that the romantic tone (not to mention plot and denouement) of Turgenev's novel is diametrically opposed to that of Sim's. In addition, Sim's characters are far less noble and self-sacrificing than those of Turgenev's. On the other hand, Elena undergoes a gradual awakening and finally rebels against her parents, as does Jaka, and the events in On The Eve also occur before and important event (the Crimean War), as do those of Sim's story. A profound pessimism also runs mercilessly through both stories. Jaka's Story thus seems  a spiritual heir to On The Eve, but with 20th Century sensibilities. The link is, however, tenuous.

Sim's depiction of Cerebus' emergence from a near-catatonic state is nothing less than a delight to behold, being both humorous and charming in equal measure. One of the most endearing characters is Doris, Cerebus' waitress. Whether she is taking Cerebus' breakfast order or engaging in a meandering explanation concerning her dilemma about deciding which shoes to buy, she is constantly the personification of cuteness, innocence and vulnerability. Deep characterisation of minor players has never been Sim's purpose, but these characters add a flavour and tone to Cerebus which is quite distinctive. Sim has a wonderful sense of timing and is keenly observant when it comes to body language. Kim Thompson once described Cerebus as a "true heir to Carl Barks' duck stories", but Sim is also one of Eisner's most devoted and masterful students.

Consider Robert Ross' departure from the Hotel d'Alsace in Memoth #1. A ten-metre walk is depicted over three pages as Ross descends into the all-enveloping darkness of Iest. A blatant metaphor perhaps, but one which is curiously affective because of its muted beauty. There is also the exquisitely touching scene in Melmoth #8 where Doris, her face lost in shadows, wipes a stray tear away from her face. Sim draws our attention to this one action by hiding her face for four pages before revealing this most telling of panels. One can almost hear her voice breaking, and Sim emphasises this by making the next two word balloons less certain in outline.

Melmoth #9 and 10 are devoted solely to Oscar's final hours. The isolation of sentences from Ross' letter adds resonance to these moments of despair, and Sim's perceptiveness reaches a peak in #10. Cerebus makes a single appearance in both issues -- through the windows of Oscar's hearse in the latter, and, perhaps more significantly, with Doris immediately after Oscar's death in the former. It is a declaration that both plotlines are inextricably linked and the Cerebus seems to represent Sim himself, mourning the passing of Wilde.

Melmoth addresses many things, but it is first and foremost an artist's tribute to a great literary figure. When did Sim's interest in Wilde begin? Was the desire to do a biography of Wilde a sudden whim which would have been better served in a mini-series? How much sophistication should we allow a work like Cerebus? Only Sim has the answers to these questions. The reader can either trust that Melmoth fits into the thematic whole of Sim's epic or debase this particular segment as being apocryphal and pretentious. Sim has stated that to avante-garde cartoonists, Cerebus is little better than a Marvel comic, but in an artform where works of erudition and pathos are sorely lacking, Cerebus is a stream in the desert.

Ng Suat Tong is a doctor working in Singapore. He has written reviews for The Comics Journal since 1993, and was the editor of the Eisner and Harvey nominated anthology, Rosetta. His essays on comics are currently to be found at The Hooded Utilitarian.


Carson Grubaugh said...

Just finished re-reading Melmoth. It is my new favorite. Such a mature work!

Tony Dunlop said...

Glad to hear it, Carson. "Melmoth" pairs with "Jaka's Story" to form for me is the high water mark of the Cerebus epic.

Jp Pollard said...

Thats a pretty damn good review.